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How do you navigate Melbourne if you can't see?

What are those bumps on the pavement for? What cues are there to cross the street if you can't see the lights?

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Margaret Shanahan and her guide dog in the CBD
Photograph: Graham Denholm

I meet Margaret Shanahan in front of the police station at Flinders Street Station.

“You might be wondering how I knew this was here,” says Shanahan. She points to raised lines on the footpath. “The first time I found these I thought, ‘where do they go?’ so I followed them and came to a wall. I asked someone what this was and they said a police station, so I’ve remembered it.”

Shanahan needs the lines on the pavement to direct her, as she was born without sight. The lines are called tactiles, and if you look down you’ll see them at every intersection and tram stop in the city. The lines are directional and help people with low or no vision find crossings, tram stops, train doors and other important markers. There are also dots at every crossing, and the dots indicate hazards – they warn people that they are about to get to a road or the edge of a train platform.

Also helping Shanahan get around is Scotty, the fox-red Labrador currently snoozing at her feet. He’s three years old and is her sixth guide dog, though she has managed with a cane for years at a time between dogs. “A cane is harder,” says Shanahan. “With a dog I can wander – not so much in the city, but in the suburbs – and think about the shopping or whatever. With a cane you always have to be switched on.”

She says she was a very nervous cane user growing up in country Victoria. When her sister, who is also blind, got her first guide dog, Shanahan was nine years old. “She brought the dog home on holidays and she let me – which she probably technically shouldn’t, because you’re not supposed to – hold the harness and walk around the block with her and straightaway I just thought, ‘Yeah, that's what I'm having.’”

With the aid of Scotty or a cane, Shanahan uses her senses of touch and hearing to navigate Melbourne, and she feels perfectly comfortable taking public transport to work at Carlton pitch-black restaurant Dans Le Noir. She says some of her previous dogs have used the tactile lines as a sort of footpath, never deviating from them, though Scotty is more of an ambling sort of dog. “Come on, find a way, find a way,” Shanahan urges him when pedestrian traffic makes moving forward difficult. 

The ticking sounds at pedestrian crossings let Shanahan know that it is safe to cross, and she has an unerring sense of direction. She can also navigate by the feel of the sun on her face – she leads me up Swanston Street, with the afternoon sun warming her face and letting her know she’s going in the right direction. She has the gift of an extraordinary memory and has a mental map of Melbourne and anywhere she has been more than once or twice. She also has another rare gift to help her navigate – she can use echolocation. “When the dog leads me up to a tram stop but I need to find the pole to find the audio button, I can click” – she demonstrates with her tongue – “and I can hear the sound coming back to me so I’ll know right where it is.” In quiet areas she can also shuffle her feet on a footpath and hear the sound bounce back off a rubbish bin – an extremely useful thing to be able to do when in the constant company of dogs.

This reliance on auditory cues means overly loud or amplified buskers severely inhibit Shanahan’s ability to navigate the city. If she can’t hear the traffic lights change, she doesn’t know when it’s safe to cross. Crowds of people also impede her progress, with few making way for her. Scotty’s unusual ginger fur makes him stand out, and oblivious people often try to pat him, which is another obstacle. And then there are other dogs.

“A lot of people seem to believe that they can bring their dog everywhere and their dogs will have such a long leash they actually trip me over. Dog owners generally need to learn a bit of control of their dogs and respect what we're doing,” says Shanahan. Dogs that belong to homeless people can be a particular danger, as they are usually off leash and can be aggressive towards Scotty as they walk along.

"For me, the biggest access issue is one we will never fix because of the climate where we live: those bollards,” she says, indicating one. “Not being able to walk straight is one of your biggest hangups when you can’t see. Especially when I’m using a cane I don’t walk in a straight line. So if you don’t walk straight you can get to the kerb and then get tangled up in bollards. Even the dog, he’s very sensitive about space so sometimes he doesn’t even want to walk between them… But we’re only going to see more of them, unfortunately.”

One thing that has changed for the better, though, is technology. Shanahan uses apps like Moovit, Google Maps and Tram Tracker to get around, and her iPhone reads out her text messages and emails and is easy to navigate using voice prompts. She also uses an app called Aira, which gives sighted people across the world access to her phone camera so they can describe her surroundings to her. It’s especially useful for finding rubbish bins. “I have heard of people who have sat at a baseball game and had the whole game described for them,” says Shanahan.

She hasn’t used the app for that, but as an ardent Tigers fan (she’s a member), Shanahan often goes to the footy with a friend who will describe the action to her. She also loves theatre and music and goes to enjoy live performance as often as she can. Sometimes she listens to audio described theatre but also enjoys going to performances without it. She recently enjoyed Muriel’s Wedding, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Evita, and she has already booked tickets to an upcoming performance of West Side Story.

All in all, Shanahan finds Melbourne to be a relatively accessible city. But she says there’s always room for improvement. “One thing I wish they had here that they have in Sydney… is that all of their traffic light poles have Braille on them. It’s all properly embossed in plastic so no one can break it or anything, and they’ll have the street name of the street that the post is on, and then it will say, for example, numbers 100 to 200 are that way, 1 to 100 are that way. So you know the number range as well. That is the best thing I’ve ever seen in terms of getting around because it’s really hard to find a number.”

If Melbourne were able to adopt such a system, it would be a lot easier for people with vision impairments to find unfamiliar addresses. But Shanahan is adamant that it does not mean our northern neighbours have a better city. “I hate having to say Sydney does something better!”

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